Baseball | Bern, baby Bern: Jumbos closer named men’s athlete of the year

 

Twelve innings, 24 hits, 22 runs, six walks and nine strikeouts. An 11.25 ERA. A Ted Williamsian opponents’ batting average of .400. 

Those were Ed Bernstein’s (A ’11) combined pitching statistics during his freshman year at Tufts. 

You couldn’t have blamed baseball head coach John Casey had he given up on Bernstein after Bernstein served up back-to-back home runs and lasted just 3.2 innings in his first collegiate start. Nor could you have blamed Bernstein if he had thrown away his cleats, donated his glove and burned his uniform that May. But Casey stuck with Bernstein, and Bernstein stuck with the program.

Three years later, Bernstein rewarded his coach’s faith with one of the best seasons in Tufts baseball history. He, in turn, was rewarded with the 2010-2011 Clarence “Pop” Houston Award, an honor named after Tufts’ first Director of Athletics that annually recognizes the best male athlete on the Hill since 1958.

Pitching primarily as the team’s closer last spring, Bernstein made 20 appearances, logged 32.2 innings and recorded nine saves. He allowed just 14 hits and 14 walks while whiffing a remarkable 43 batters. 

Most notably, he did not allow a single earned run. 

The difference between Bernstein’s freshman season and his senior campaign was like night and day. But the turning point actually came a year before his historic season.

 

A tale of two careers

On a typically blustery afternoon at Huskins Field on April 18, 2010, Tufts was hosting then-No. 13 Trinity in a critical battle for NESCAC supremacy. After six innings in the doubleheader’s first game, the Jumbos and Bantams were locked in a 4-4 tie, and Casey called on Bernstein to preserve the draw and give the offense a chance to win it.

Then a junior, Bernstein responded by dominating the Bantams over the next four frames, picking up eight strikeouts along the way. Finally, then-sophomore Sam Sager led off the bottom of the 10th inning with a walkoff home run.

“Eddie always could throw,” Casey said. “He always had that potential, but that extra-inning game against Trinity was when he realized it. It was the first time you could tell he was really invested — he showed emotion. He made a fist-pump on his way back into the dugout and fired everyone up.”

Casey praised Bernstein’s growth between his sophomore and junior years, noting his closer’s maturation and increased commitment to staying in shape. Bernstein was driven by a fear that he would be cut before he had a chance to make his mark on Tufts baseball.

“It was funny, because I didn’t really have a great indoor season that fall,” he said. “When you get to your junior year, you just don’t know. I went in with the idea that if I didn’t pitch as well as I could, I might not get another opportunity. There was more of a sense of urgency.”

Bernstein also credited the coaching staff for improving his delivery and helping him hone his arsenal, which includes a low-90s fastball, a split-finger changeup, a curveball and a slider that he picked up during his senior year. 

“Coach [Casey] really did wonders with my mechanics; you could see that in the video,” he said. “He made me a lot more compact, a lot more consistent, got my release point a lot more out in front to put movement on my pitches—all of that can be attributed to coach.”

In the aforementioned outing against Trinity, all of those tweaks came together in one performance. Bernstein blew his fastball by the Bantams and kept them off-balance with his breaking pitches, always maintaining the domineering mindset that would become crucial during his senior year.

 

A closer’s mentality

Take a look around Major League Baseball, and you’ll find that many of the sport’s most eccentric players are closers. From Brian Wilson’s jet-black beard, to Jose Valverde’s over-the-top post-save celebrations, there’s something about pitching with the game on the line that either requires a degree of wackiness or makes one wacky.

Prior to the 2011 season, the Jumbos learned that they would be without their previous year’s ninth-inning force, then-junior Chris DeGoti, who underwent Tommy John surgery. DeGoti had set a single-season program record with 12 saves in his sophomore campaign, so he left the team with big shoes to fill in his role. 

Fortunately, Bernstein fit the bill in more ways than one. Described by his coach as “a big goofball with size 14 shoes,” Bernstein had the combination of lightheartedness and competitive fire that is necessary to thrive under pressure. Still, he knew he’d have to prove himself in the new role.

“I went in thinking that it was my job to lose, but I didn’t think it was a given,” he said. “You get your job when you earn it.”

And he did not earn it right away. In his second appearance of the season, Bernstein walked the leadoff man, airmailed a pickoff throw to first, allowed the runner to advance to third on a wild pitch and gave up a single that brought him home. Yet despite the rocky start, Bernstein’s confidence and aggressive mentality never wavered.

“My mindset is always to just attack the hitter,” he said. “If you pitch ahead in the count, it makes your job a lot easier and theirs a lot harder. You face every hitter like he’s your last, because if coach comes over to take you out, you never know when your next chance will come.”

That sense of urgency would fuel Bernstein through the rest of his senior year. It was there each time he took the mound, and it keyed his pursuit of the achievement that all pitchers dream of: a flawless 0.00 ERA.

 

‘Freakin’ zero’

When asked to describe Bernstein’s record, Casey, a man who rarely struggles to form an opinion, had a hard time giving it proper perspective.

“How do you put something like that in its place?” he said. “It’s like asking a pitcher, ‘How do you throw a perfect game?’ They’ll tell you, ‘Well, I try to do it every time, but it never happens.’ We went out hoping Eddie could do a job. But freakin’ zero? We never thought in our wildest dreams that he would do that.”

Showing his trademarked humility, Bernstein lauds his teammates for making his historic season possible. 

“I really don’t deserve the recognition I’ve gotten for this,” he said. “Guys just made plays for me all year. Chase Rose (A ’11) made an unbelievable catch for me against N.C. Wesleyan. Matt Collins (A ’12) called great games for me every time. If our starting pitching isn’t as great as it was, I don’t get those opportunities to save games. So many things had to happen for me to get that zero.”

Still, pitching over three games’ worth of innings without allowing an earned run is an incredible feat for any pitcher at any level. 

“This is something that will sink in over time,” Casey said. “It’s going to take years of [guys] not coming close for us to fully appreciate it.”

 

Leading by example

In addition to leaving his mark in the Tufts baseball record books, Bernstein also made an impression on the team’s underclassman pitchers, just as those who came before him served as role models when he took his lumps during his freshman and sophomore years.

“All of the upperclassmen were a huge help when things weren’t going well for me,” he said. “Jason Protano [A ’08], Adam Telian [A ’08], Mike Stefaniak [E ’09], Tommy Hill [A ’10], they were all guys who had been through this before, and they showed me and the other pitchers what we had to do to succeed.”

Bernstein took their lessons to heart.  Though soft-spoken and humble by nature, he was happy to pass them on to pitchers who looked up to him last spring. One of those younger arms was Alex Cronkite (A ’13), who served as the primary setup man to Bernstein for part of last season. 

“Eddie was a student of the game, and he knew the way we were supposed to play inside and out, especially from a defensive perspective,” Cronkite said. “He was the guy I’d look to whenever I was confused on what to do. He never let his emotions get the best of him, and would always leave everything he had on the field. Those are things that I really respected him for.”

Bernstein’s ascent to the closer role also paved the way for the rest of the bullpen to take on new challenges.

“Eddie accepted that he had to step up for us, and he turned his mind to that from the start of the season,” Casey said. “That’s what made him a leader, and made the younger pitchers look up to him.”

 

Keeping them honest

Bernstein’s stuff and desire to compete made him a role model on the field, but it was his honesty during the recruiting process that first endeared him to the Tufts coaching staff.

After watching him throw during a showcase, Casey met with Bernstein and later looked over his academic credentials. Among them, Casey found what Bernstein remembers him calling “a girl SAT score:” a perfect 800 in English. Yet Casey also saw a red flag: a slump in his grades, especially English, during the early part of his senior year in high school.

Bernstein, who had let his dad do most of the talking in the meeting, did not miss a beat in explaining away the one roadblock to his future at Tufts.

“He told me, ‘After I got that 800 on the SAT, I didn’t think I had anything left to learn,'” Casey said. “That was the last thing I expected him to say, but that’s Eddie. He’s just a goofball, an honest goofball.”

Bernstein brought that honesty with him to the program, taking as much responsibility for his early struggles as he did credit for more recent success. Casey threatened to cut Bernstein from the team prior to three of his four seasons with the Jumbos, but his integrity and effort — as well as his arm — convinced the coaches that he would eventually push through.

That effort was on full display during the team’s conditioning tests, where the stairs drill — a four-lap stair circuit around Cousens Gym — was Bernstein’s kryptonite

“The year Eddie had to run stairs, that was one of my favorite moments,” Casey said. “It took him three or four tries, and by that point other guys were standing up and cheering for him. It almost killed him, but he did it. From a perseverance standpoint, Eddie was definitely a leader.”

 

Athlete of the year

The Clarence “Pop” Houston Award —  which Bernstein will receive at the Tufts Athletics Annual Awards Ceremony, held tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Cohen Auditorium — is a fitting apex for his collegiate career. Bernstein’s four years at Tufts epitomized the on-field maturation, locker room leadership and academic success that all student-athletes are expected to strive for.

Bernstein reflected on the meaning of the award, wondering if he was as worthy of it as another standout Jumbo.

“It’s awesome; it’s something that I really appreciate,” he said. “You look at the names on that list, a lot of guys at Tufts who had storied careers, and you think about what it means to be there alongside them.” 

“Honestly, I don’t know how they didn’t pick [men’s lacrosse attackman] D.J. Hessler [E ’11]. He’s had an unbelievable career here — he’s had a national championship — and to be in the conversation with those guys is a real honor.”

But, whether it ultimately sealed the award for him or not, Bernstein did something during his senior year that no Tufts athlete ever has, and that few likely ever will. In addition to etching his name next to those of other Jumbos legends from sailor Mark Mendelblatt (A ’95), a world championship silver-medalist, to Jeff Taglienti (A ’97), the last pitcher to win the Houston Award, Bernstein made sure that his record would always sit atop the baseball team’s all-time pitching statistics.

“Most records are broken,” said Casey, of Bernstein’s spotless season. “Eddie’s can only be tied.”


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